Powers Unfiltered

An entrepreneur’s journey into grid computing and partnering with Microsoft, by John Powers

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Not a Utility

October 25th, 2006 · No Comments

Emil Sit has an excellent post on his recent experience with SunGrid, charitably titled “Observations on SunGrid Customer Care.”  He begins with:

I  haven’t used the SunGrid this week. In fact, no one has: there was a four day outage from last Saturday morning through this morning.

His post is quite illuminating about Sun, customer care, individuals involved in support services, communication philosophy, and related issues.  His conclusion:

As an idea, the SunGrid is a fast and easy way to get parallelism and performance flexibly. But Sun has to continue to improve the user interface (e.g., beyond the clever hack for job monitoring suggested to me by a Sun engineer) and relability of their infrastructure. Unless they do, people without CPU grants are going to start looking at alternatives like using Amazon’s hosted EC2 or running their own DigiPede.

Emil is, sadly, more than right.  Sun has to improve a lot of things, not just the UI, and not just reliability, because most people ARE ALREADY looking at (and using) alternatives (and — thanks for mentioning us!).  The problem isn’t UI — the problem is getting way, way ahead of the market, technology, and Sun’s own skill set.

Let me confess that I spent 20 years in or near the electric utility industry, and I know  A LOT about utilities.  SunGrid is not a utility.  The “utility computing” analogy bothers me in general, and I don’t have nearly the time or energy to break it down fully, but the standards, reliability, infrastructure, training, and commitment are not there (anywhere in the IT industry, including Sun) to run a utility.    

I almost wrote “not there YET” in that last sentence, but I remain unconvinced that a utility model will ever (or should ever) apply very well to computing.  Let’s be clear — I think outsourced computing in several forms can be viable, and that there are things you may want to compute on someone else’s computing infrastructure.  That doesn’t make it a utility.  And that’s probably OK.

The electric utility industry is boring.  Yes, I still have many fine friends there, and they are not, mostly, boring, but the industry as a whole does best when it changes slowly or not at all — and with good reason.  Appliances built in 1910 still run just fine when plugged into a socket — a socket whose voltage and frequency standards have not changed in a century.  Inventions since Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse have been largely incremental — in generation, transmission, and distribution.  Ways to USE electricity have changed radically over time, but even these are constrained (dramatically) by unchanging standards for voltage, frequency, and a handful of other key parameters. 

The tech industry has very few of the constraints (or benefits) of standards like these.  (Again, I don’t have time to elaborate fully (stay tuned for future posts), but if anyone wants to debate me on whether a Web Services standard compares to the 60-Hertz standard, I warn you — you’re going to lose.)  The tech industry delights in overthrowing standards, and as a result has made some pretty phenomenal progress — but as a result, use and generation of computing power have remained very closely coupled. 

Is this good or bad?  The jury is out (more on this another day).  But is it fact?  Yes.  The tech culture is not the utility culture (again, watch out if you want to debate me on this).  So even as we all root for SunGrid (even me), the deck is stacked against them. 


Tags: Grid applications · Usability · Utility Industry

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